It is often thought that beneath the skin of every state legislator lurks a member of Congress. This is not so in Georgia. At least, not entirely.
If you take away the fights over how many drinks a lobbyist can buy a lawmaker on a single tab, or whether an armpit or ankle holster is most appropriate for biology class, the theme of this recently completed session of the General Assembly becomes obvious.
Many Republicans in your state Capitol harbor secret aspirations to be city council members, county commissioners and school board members. This was the year that lawmakers took an eraser and smudged the line that divides state and local government.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision to suspend six of nine members of the DeKalb County school board was just the start. A newly configured Fulton County legislative delegation, packed with Republicans, began the process of rebuilding that county in their image with a dozen bills. Most passed.
Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, floated S.B. 95, a bill that would make the election of the DeKalb County CEO a non-partisan contest. Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, threatened to remove the taxation power of the Bibb County Board of Education with S.B. 247. Those bills failed.
Other examples are too many to list. But much of this GOP-generated local legislation was directed at the state’s Democratic enclaves. And in Georgia, that quickly becomes a black-and-white matter.
Most, though not all, denizens of the state Capitol are willing to put the governor’s decision to remake the DeKalb school board in a separate category. The 99,000-student system was too big to fail, and state law offered Deal few options – a situation likely to be addressed next year.
After that, Fulton County is where Republicans plowed their most controversial ground, with measures to redraw county commission districts, give the GOP control of the county election board, and make the county’s chief magistrate an elected position. The first would be appointed by a Republican governor.
“Local control to me has never meant, to me, to be exclusive control. There should always be a check-and-balance that takes place,” said House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, who ramrodded passage of the Fulton legislation through his chamber. (Lindsey does not want to be a county commissioner – he’s currently considering a race for Congress.)
Lindsey said Fulton’s county government – which in fact has a vast reputation for dysfunction — had stifled reform, and refused to recognize that the municipalization of north Fulton has changed its responsibilities.
“In my mind, we’re acting like a traffic cop. We’re not trying to run the day-to-day operations,” the lawmaker said. “If it became a permanent meddling, then I think that you would see some discontent. We certainly don’t expect to be delving this much into county government on a permanent basis. We’re just looking for institutional reform that will allow us to back off.”
Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, who also may have congressional prospects, is chairman of the Senate’s Fulton County delegation. ‘Local control as a term is inconsistently applied by local leaders to achieve their objectives,” Hill said.
Fulton residents unhappy with their county government went over their heads to the state Capitol, Hill said – just as those displeased with state government often petition Washington to intervene.
But state Rep. Simone Bell, D-Atlanta, sees something new and different. “I’m concerned that this is setting a precedent, of the state doing major power grabs on city councils and school boards, as well as county commissions,” she said.
There is something wrong, she said, when local legislation for a Democratic-majority county is wholly in the hands of a Republican minority. Fulton County’s House delegation held a single meeting, early in the session, to ratify Republican control. “Since then, if there have been Fulton county meetings, none of us have been invited to them,” Bell said on the final day of the session.
Racial polarization is at the root of this situation, and all parties feel wronged. Millar, the Dunwoody senator, said he introduced his bill to make DeKalb CEO elections nonpartisan because Democrats never seem to fit north DeKalb into their campaign strategy.
“I still believe, at the end of the day, your CEO is going to be a Democrat. But if you make them at least go through the entire county to campaign and talk to people, I think that’s going to benefit the entire county,” Millar said. “Is that meddling in local control? Yeah, probably. To a degree.”
And where might it stop? “Where you’re seeing Republicans intervene is where we think it’s so inefficient and so wasteful, where there’s better ways to do things and it’s not being done locally,” Miller said. “And yes, DeKalb, Fulton – you see that.”
It’s worth noting that, as the 2013 session of the Legislature came to an end on Thursday, the Republican-dominated Fayette County Commission, by a 5-0 vote, approved a resolution in defense of Fulton County – and in opposition to the GOP effort in the Capitol to remake it.
“We don’t like to see local legislation used as a political sledgehammer,” said Steve Brown, chairman of the Fayette County Commission.